Tanking has become the new popular phrase and one Charlotte Hornets fans are very familiar with. It's used to describe teams trying to be as bad as possible in order to have a high draft pick. The concept sounds great in theory; be terrible for a year, grab the next superstar in the draft, then you'll be able to contend in a few years. The problem is only one team can get the number one pick in a lottery that is based completely on random chance. No team has experienced the bad parts of this strategy quite like the Charlotte Bobcats did in 2011-12.
The 2012 draft may turn out to be one of the best that we've seen. Headlining the draft was the next generational All Star, Kentucky's Anthony Davis. He was supposed to be the player that saved the one lucky franchise who won the lottery. That lucky team was supposed to be the Charlotte Bobcats.
Just two years removed from reaching the playoffs, Charlotte's decline to the cellar of the league was fast and abrupt. Winning 44 games and reaching the playoffs in 2009-2010 was followed by a 34 win season in 2010-2011 before the catastrophe that was the 11-12 season. What happened to spur on this incredible decline?
In February of 2010, the Bobcats announced that Michael Jordan, one of the most beloved NBA players in the history of the sport, had purchased the team from then owner Robert Johnson. Everything was looking great in the city of Charlotte; the Bobcats made the playoffs, Michael Jordan was their new famous owner. It all seemed like everything was on the up swing. It certainly didn't seem like things were on the decline.
The following offseason brought many changes across the league, most notably the teaming up of Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James in Miami. The Bobcats lost key players of their own from the previous year. Starting point guard Raymond Felton and key rotational players such as Larry Hughes, Raja Bell, and Tyson Chandler all left Charlotte that summer. The team brought in infamous draft bust Kwame Brown to try and fill Chandler's shoes and younger guys like DJ Augustin and Gerald Henderson were called to take on much bigger roles.
As can be imagined, the team got off to a rough start and were 9-19 in their first 28 games. This was the precursor to Hall of Fame head coach Larry Brown's resignation in the middle of the year. The team would then be taken over by Paul Silas and finish with 34 wins, ten shy of their previous playoff season record.
The following offseason saw the departures of the team's two best players from their last two seasons, Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson. Wallace had spent seven seasons with the team before being traded to the Portland Trailblazers in February of the 10-11 season. Stephen Jackson was traded on draft night in a deal that moved the Bobcats up to No. 7 in order to take Bismack Biyombo, a young and raw center. Included in that trade was pick No. 19, the pick that landed the Milwaukee Bucks Tobias Harris, who is now arguably the Orlando Magic's best player. The team also selected Kemba Walker in that draft as their point guard of the future, thus showing that they didn't believe in DJ Augustin as that player anymore.
The rest is history. What was to follow the summer of turnover in Charlotte was the worst season in any franchise has ever had. The 7-59 record the Bobcats accomplished in the lockout shortened season is still the worst winning percentage of any team in the history of the NBA. To make matters even more embarrassing, they ended the season on a 23 game losing streak, another NBA record. It is probably safe to say that this was the worst season any one NBA team might have ever had.
Despite this horrid season, the Bobcats still had the draft to look forward to. Being the worst team in the league has the perk of having the highest probability of winning the number one pick. Charlotte went into the night of the lottery feeling confident about their chances to land the number one pick and in turn, land the next league superstar, Anthony Davis. As the ping pong balls were pulled and the cards were opened, the heartbreak feeling came once again as the Bobcats came up as the No. 2 pick, being jumped by the New Orleans Hornets. Charlotte experienced the ugly side of tanking; being as bad as a team has ever been and not receiving the prize that comes along with it is one of the biggest punches to the gut a franchise has probably ever received.
What went wrong? How, in just two short seasons, did a team go from playoffs to worst team ever?
Obviously, the biggest culprit for this could be the amount of roster turnover of key players over the course of two summers. They lost the bulk of their minutes and production and replaced those spots with young players and overrated veterans. That is never going to be a recipe for success.
The underlying theme through this story, however, is the cost of tanking a season away. The summer following their playoff appearance, they lost several key players and then started the season poorly. After seeing this, it is quite reasonable to suggest that the front office saw that the ceiling of the team wasn't that of a playoff team, and decided to grab assets for the remaining talent they had on their roster. With Anthony Davis also looming in the following draft, they could afford to go all in on being the worst team if it meant receiving The Brow.
Unfortunately, Charlotte ended up being the poster child for tanking gone wrong. The one key flaw in tanking is that the lottery isn't guaranteed. The NBA draft isn't like the NFL where the order is set based on performance. You can only have up to a 25% of winning the number one pick if you're the worst team in the league. Your chances of not receiving that pick is 75%, far greater odds. While tanking seems to be the most popular path to getting a superstar and inevitably contending, there are more risks and higher probabilities of that path failing. The poor Charlotte Bobcats had to find that out the hard way.